SOME INTERESTING MEMORIALS INSIDE ST MARY’S CHURCH TENBY
BY WENDY HUGHES
The parish church of St Mary’s, domineering the centre of the holiday resort of Tenby in south Wales, is reputed to be the largest church in Wales, The 152ft octagonal spire has a weathercock, a landmark for local shipping, and is most impressive at night when the exterior of the church is floodlight. The four sided chiming clock clock has four faces was installed in 1899 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. The church also has its own ghost. It is claimed that on some nights a ghostly figure in a hooded robe walks down the central aisle of the church before fading away. It is not known who this person is, but there are several tunnels leading from beneath the church to various parts of the town. In the churchyard, just 20 west of the church, are the remains of what is believed to be a late 15th century choir school or college. The wall has a pointed arched doorway and these remains are now Grade II listed.
It church was first mentioned in 1210 when, the then rector, Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) complained of being deprived of the tithes of fish that were due to him. The interior of the church was stripped and lime-waxed in the 1960s giving is a spacious and light feeling, and contains some very interesting tombs and monuments each telling its own unique story.
One of the most colourful and saddest is a memorial to the first wife of Thomas ap Rees of Scotsborough, a former mansion house near the town. It has been restored to its original colours and gilding, and the Latin inscription reproduced from the original. It states,’ Thomas ap Rees of Scotsborough, esquire, placed this monument to the tender memory of a worthy wife Margaret Mercer, deceased in childbirth who died on 1 May in the year of our Lord 1610, after having lived twelve years most faithfully with her husband and having borne ten children, seven of whom still live; she died age thirty.’ The design is very typical of the period and displays heraldry showing the status of the two families and the life-size human figures, as well as the seven little children in miniature at the base. Every woman visiting this memorial must surely spare a thought for poor Margaret who must have been tried of continually being pregnant.
Another of the memorials is to one of the greatest men of the Tudor period, Robert Recorde. He was born in Tenby around 1510 and was the pioneer of mathematical writers and was the first to introduce the knowledge of algebra into Britain. He was also the first writer of geometry and astronomy. He invented the present method of finding the square root, and also the equal (=) sign, which is used throughout the world.
In 1525 he went to All Souls in Oxford where he studied and later lectured in mathematics, music and anatomy. His first book entitled, ‘The Ground of Arts – a popular arithmetic’ was published in 1543. In 1545 he took a medical degree at the University of Cambridge, and in 1547 became physician to the young King Edward VI and Queen Mary, to whom some of his books are dedicated. Recorde’s book, The Castle of Knowledge, about astronomy was written in the form of a dialogue between master and pupil, and the title page shows a castle in the centre with people looking towards the heights of the stars. Obviously one of Pembrokeshire’s
many castles influenced the woodcut design, but no records exist to tell us which one. Interestingly a copy of this book together with another on mathematics fetched the sum of 3s 6d (17p) at a London auction in 1664. In 1960 a copy of The Castle of Knowledge was sold by Sotheby’s of London for £1,100.
Recorde was also controller of the Royal Mint and served as ‘Comptroller of Mines and Monies’ in Ireland, but sadly Recorde was summonsed before the Court of the King’s Bench on a charge of ‘defamation of magnates’ by a political enemy and was ordered to pay £1,000 with costs, a vast sum of money in those days. Unable to pay the fine, he was sent to the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark where is it believed he died in the middle of June 1556.
The last days of Robert’s life are shrouded in as much mystery as the sculptured head on a pillar in Tenby’s parish church. The medallion was modelled in 1909 by Owen Thomas from a dilapidated early 17th century oil painting discovered in Middlesex and reputed to that of the Tenby genius. The person is shown bareheaded, bald and wearing a black dress. The painting had been badly damaged by over-cleaning and the inscription ‘Robot Recorded MD 1556, is thought to have been added much later, possibly in the 19th century.
Also in the church, opposite the plaque to Robert Recorded is a monument of a man kneeling as in prayer, but a closer look will reveal that his face is completely mutated. Legend informs us that during the time of the Civil War a soldier, thinking it was a man at prayer, shot at him.
Every year St Mary’s church holds a Flower Festival in early July which attracts a large number of visitors. Various organisations and churches contribute to the displays, and money raised supports a number of charities. So if you are looking for a tranquil place to enjoy a week or so with sand, sea, history, good food and culture then Tenby is the ideal location.